Growing old digitally

My birthday was marked in a way that wouldn’t have been possible ten years ago: 78 greetings via Facebook; one ecard; an email; a what’s app message; and two text messages. I also received a parcel via Amazon, and an old-fashioned phonecall. I didn’t bother to check the mail box. In Itchy Ankle things followed a more traditional path. Peggoty and Barkis laid on a spread which concluded with ice cream all round, and Ms. Monroe, the Captain and Lady Di gave me a new garden sprinkler, ideal for watering the daylilies I bought yesterday at the Lutheran church sale. It is good to be 54.

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Writin’ Dirty

I am pretty sure I have a peptic ulcer. Before you start with the lip pursing and teeth sucking and head shaking, I wish to stress that this is not a complaint brought on by stress; nor is it sparked by excess of any kind. The peptic ulcer, a kind of boil or black hole in the stomach lining, is caused by common or garden germs, such as those found on unwashed hands or undercooked poultry. The complaint can also be caused by kissing and so I am going to claim that my canker is the unfortunate after effect of an intense saliva exchange with a red hot lover who forgot his toothbrush. I don’t intend to rush to the doctor. I am pretty sure a stomach lining, like a curtain lining, a dress lining or a brake lining can last quite a long while before it gives out completely. I wouldn’t wish to effect repairs before I and my paramour are completely done ;) and besides I have a busy week or two at work.  If I should be swapping Pepe for the Pepto Bismol, I am sure you will write.

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I don’t got milk

I have failed the online Irish test set by Buzzfeed. I can’t sing the anthem, I don’t speak Gaelic and, perhaps most damning of all, I don’t drink tea. It is the milk that puts me off.

mrs doyleI find milk repulsive. In Ireland it is rare to be offered tea without it. My dislike of  dairy product prompted me to give up tea-drinking at around age 16, about the same time I stopped going to church. In Belfast, the two decisions were seen as equally shocking. Nearly forty years on, my sister still offers me a cup of tea every time she sees me and when I decline it wounds her. She keens by the kettle like Father Ted’s Mrs Doyle “Ah go on, y’will, y’will, y’will. ” I won’t.

If there is one thing I like less than cold milk, it is hot milk:the smell of it when it scalds thevick pan. The yellow skin slime. The sickly cinnamon scent redolent of a 1960s sanatorium, so much less appealing than the still-welcome whiff of Vick, a packet of Tunes, or a newly filled hot water bottle, the other smells of childhood convalescence.

Imagine my horror on a visit this week to the Indian Embassy in Washington DC, when I was urged several times to drink tea from an urn: tea already mixed with warmed milk.  I could feel bile rising in my throat like boiling milk in a cheap aluminum pan. I poured a cupful. “Add sugar” my tormentors said. I had to spoon and stir.

To my astonishment, the drink was delicious. Assam tea, boiling water, the dreaded warmed full-fat and the addition of cardamom and a little sugar. If cardamom had been a condiment in Belfast during the Troubles I could have been a chai drinker since childhood. I am now making up for lost time, enabled by two large bags of black tea straight from the padi fields of North East India, a gift from one of my new acquaintances. I have raided the curry cupboard for the cardamom.

In the next few days, I will be toasting in Chai  to celebrate my friend Juliet’s film. The Hundred Foot Journey is the story of an Indian chef and his French mentor. The fragrant Helen Mirren stars but early reviews suggest that the aroma of Indian spice steals many of the scenes. Good luck to producer Juliet Blake on the red carpet and at the box office. You can find me at the opening of the tea caddy.

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Where am I? Who am I?

My son has embraced a new Facebook trend and turns out to have a talent for it. In the last week, he has posted:

I am so DC I remember dat if u had 3 buckets and 2 sticks u had a party

I am so DC I remember using the [bus] transfer for 6–pass it back or out the window

I am so DC I remember da [dude] in the firehat use to walk up and down with his radio

I actually remember dat dude myself. He was tall and skinny and frenetic and usually wore only a wifebeater and some skinny sort of long lycra shorts. In my memory, he was often on roller blades but since Hansel didn’t mention those, perhaps I made them up. The dude used to carry his boom box on his shoulder and race along the streets of the city, blaring his beats. Haven’t seen him for years, and his story probably didn’t end well.

Hansel is DC through and through and has often been forced to point out what a misfit I am in the city of his birth. He is right.


I am so not DC I eat fried chicken with a knife and fork.

I am so not DC I have never eaten at Ben’s Chili Bowl

I am so not DC I would never think of playing jump rope with a telephone cord

I am so not DC I have never run through a fire hydrant fountain on a hot summer day

I am so not DC that if I was homeless I wouldn’t have the sense to panhandle by a steam vent in winter

I am so not DC I have never stood in line to pay respects to a dead person in the Capitol

I am so not DC I never used a coupon at Hecht’s.

Belfast now, that’s another matter. I can do Belfast.

I am so Belfast I got served in the Bot when I was 14

I am so Belfast, I remember when Pottinger’s Entry smelled of pee

I am so Belfast, I bought all my books from Gardner’s or Mullen’s and had never heard of Waterstones or Borders

I am so Belfast, I remember the layout of Robinson and Cleaver and Anderson and McCauley

I am so Belfast my brother wanted me to click with one of the Stiff Little Fingers so he could get free concert tickets

I am so Belfast I used to be a wee doll

I am so Belfast my hands still smell of rust from the birlie roundabout at Lady Dixon Park

I have more. I have so many more.

Posted in About the Blarney Crone, Books, Crone in America, Crone in the Nation's capital, Culture with the Crone, family, Gangsta Hansel & Ghetto Gretel, Humor, Tales of a Belfast girlhood, The Traveling Crone, You can take the Crone out of Ireland | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Nominated for Blog Awards Ireland, 2014

The Blarney Crone has made it to the long list in the Diaspora and Humor categories for Blog Awards Ireland, 2014. Thanks to all who voted.

Unfortunately, public polling is now ended and so I cannot urge you to exercise your franchise and vote early and often.

I do note however that the competition’s organizers are seeking additional judges. You can apply for this role here.  I know you will do the right thing.

blog awards ireland

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Hot enough to set alarm bells ringing

The smoke alarms went off at 1am, waking me and probably the whole of Itchy Ankle. I tumbled out of bed and stumbled into the kitchen where I stood naked on a kitchen chair to rip the alarm from the ceiling. I dragged the chair into the hall and decapitated that alarm too.

I checked the stove for a forgotten pot on a burning ring. Nothing.  No haze in the air, and no smell of smoke. I checked the trash can to see if anything was smoldering. All clear. I looked outside in case arsonists had attacked the garden shed. All quiet. The garden is a blaze of color. Could that be the problem? Apparently not.

Then I remembered. The acupuncturist said my Fire was low this week. It’s the element that makes us exuberant, sparkling and enthusiastic. The man with the needles found my Fire flickering and dim on Tuesday and treated it along with my bad knees.  Now my flame is burning bright. I am on fire. I am hot enough to set off alarms.

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This week by the water

I am like a mother who can’t limit the number of darling baby pictures she will post on Facebook. I am as bad as the crazy cat lady who provides minute by minute updates on the lives of Squiffy and Bitters and Floss. I am a day lily bore. The spoils of my spending in the Lutheran church parking lot last fall are now in bloom and I love them. Each morning, I can be seen in my shift and no shoes, taking photos in my flowerbeds. Each lily lasts only one day and no two are alike. All must be worshiped and adored.

Ms. Monroe has been to Pennsylvania and picked up a new Maine Coon kitten, the newest incomer to Itchy Ankle.

Following weeks of worry, Peggoty has good news about her small grandson. After long hours in waiting rooms, MRI machines and hospital gowns, he is back home and healthy. Phew.

I toured the Nation’s capital on a Segway, defying my own steadfast conviction that the tour organizers would take one look at me and suggest I stay back, unfit to ride.  I whizzed through the FDR memorial on wheels and took a turn or two past the Jefferson memorial without mowing down a tourist or clipping a kerb.  91 people liked the picture I posted on Facebook, astonished to learn that I could balance, navigate small spaces, and stay upright for three hours.  I think my time behind the handlebars has inspired new hope that I may be able to function adequately on two feet, and in the great outdoors.

Ms. Monroe and I took the late afternoon air in her Boston Whaler, dawdling in backwaters with the ospreys and heron. Tomorrow there is banana walnut bread and rhubarb for breakfast and the promise of new bursts of color to enliven the day.


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Family Frailty

tonyMy son and I have a lot in common, once you get past genetic makeup, skin color, gender, sporting prowess, and taste in music. Like me, he is not entirely honest with himself or others; is not inclined to stick around and sort things out when he has messed up; and can be stubborn and imperious when shamed. Trust is not our strong suit. We are both funny and charming and risk-taking and gregarious. We often go too far with fun, hurting ourselves and others in the process. I am good with children, and he is even better.  This is helpful as he is now a single father with a 10 month old daughter.

I haven’t seen much of my son in the last two years–his choice, not mine. In the pastSAM_0798 couple of weeks we have met a couple of times and it is good to be back in touch. He is clever with words and, like me, enjoys picking just the right one. His ability is impressive because he relies on context and deduction to work out the meaning of unfamiliar words–his uncertain spelling makes dictionary diving very difficult. He stores new finds in his memory and relishes the chance to deploy them. Someone was correctly described as nonchalant this week. I know I have written the word before, but I am not sure I have ever said it out loud.

On the face of it, the middle-aged, overweight, white woman (dressed in office clothes) and the young black man (wife-beater, torn jeans, giant tennis shoes, and ever-visible boxers) eating french fries together outside an urban Checkers look like a mismatch, but our lives have turned in surprisingly similar circles.  Hansel is now raising his daughter alone. I was raised by my father alone. We both lost our mothers when we were children and have found it too hard to leave that pain behind. My dearest wish for him is that he gets to raise his child to adulthood, something our own mothers were denied.

Sitting at a hot concrete table outside a strip mall burger bar we sucked down exhaust fumes with our milkshakes. “Where are the big words coming from? ” I said. “I am reading a bit” said Hansel “and trying to write some stories. Just my thoughts about things”.

“Keep at it” I said, just as my father always said to me. “It’s comforting isn’t it? It keeps you company”

He nodded and picked up the baby’s carrier seat, hoisting her into the back of my car

“We should write a book” I said. “I can write about my father and you can write about your daughter”.

“That would be a hell of a story” he said. We both know we don’t have the staying power.

liz pictures 173

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‘Thon Fella—What’s His Name?

IMG_1317Brendan “the Dark” Hughes, must be swiveling in the grave that has cradled him since 2008. The IRA man, a 1980s hunger striker, died peacefully in a hospital bed, after a life devoted to gunning down others in the name of Irish freedom. For many people in Northern Ireland he is a hero, but it is fair to say he does not have many fans among those of Ulster Scots heritage, my own proud tradition. His was not a face I ever expected to see again, so imagine my surprise when up popped a picture of the Dark, above a caption claiming him as the Executive Producer of a new television program shown on BBC 2 Northern Ireland this week. The Dark’s picture features on an app promoting The Gaitherin. This monthly magazine show celebrates all that is unique about the Ulster Scots–their taciturn tenacity, their Presbyterian puritanism, and their love of the Lambeg Drum. Truly, Brendan “the Dark” Hughes wouldn’t be seen dead anywhere near it.

Let me explain: Ulster Scots people are the descendents of people who came to from the Scottish Lowlands in the early 1600s as part of the Tudor Plantation of Ireland. These people were early adopters of Protestantism. The English Queen was pleased to pay to move them only 13 miles across a strip of stormy sea so she could have them on Irish soil where they could help her keep the Celtic Catholic rabble at bay. Much of this population has remained fiercely loyal to the British crown ever since and, because of their trenchant opposition to the idea of an independent Ireland in the early 1900s, Northern Ireland remains a part of the United Kingdom today. The old, original Irish Republican Army fought to have Ireland liberated from English rule nearly a century ago. Fast forward sixty or seventy years and you have the likes of Brendan “the Dark” Hughes prepared to risk his own life,and take the lives of many others, in an effort to convince the British Parliment to get the hell out of North and leave the Ulster Scots to fend for themselves in the coldest corner of a United Ireland. It didn’t work out that way.


brendanMost of the population of Northern Ireland–Ulster Scots Protestant or Celtic Roman Catholic –did not take the terror trail followed by The Dark. They stayed out of trouble and out of each other’s way. In a largely segregated society, no-one needed to meet anyone who wasn’t from their own tribe. Education and a Euro grant or two are changing all that. Prosperous, professional Protestants and Catholics now live and work together in a way that just didn’t happen when I was growing up in the ’60s and ’70s. It is possible still for people from each tradition to choose to keep themselves to themselves, never venturing past their own partisan-painted gable end but for the most part everyone is mixing and mingling; practicing playing nicely.  So it is that The Gaitherin  is  produced by one Brendan Hughes. Actually by my friend Brendan “Spud” Hughes and not the the moustachioed IRA member.  Same name: two very different people. As you can see, the most sinister thing about Spud are the dark frames on his glasses. He is more ganch than guerilla freedom fighter. Although far from where he was reared (by the Christian Brothers in Newry, Co. Down, right on the Northern Ireland Border) he is completely comfortable talking to red-haired people who have oxters where others have armpits. He is terrible fand of them forbye.  No-one needs to fear for his life when Spud shows up at the door carrying a camera, not a Kalashnikov. He makes wee fillums about flute fingering, and shares recipes for tray bakes on TV. He knows the importance of a Sunday hat bought from Logans of Cloughmills. While not a dulse eater himself, he has a tolerance for those who do indulge. He roams the roads of Armoy, Lisnagat, Liscolman and Mosside in Co.Antrim  speaking to old men whose first names are Campbell and Armstrong and Nelson.  They are almost certainly relatives of mine and they speak as my maternal grandparents did: They “canny call the polis” even if they “had a quare gunk” from a hard chaw, a drouth, or a sleekit wee skitter. (Translation available here). Spud seems remarkably unfazed to have been mistaken for the Hunger Striker Hard Man by Google Images. He thinks its a laugh. It is a testament to how things have changed in Northern Ireland, that no one else is up in arms over an error that might once have cost millions in a libel suit–or, worse, cost people their lives.

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My childhood bedroom

My parents decided not to replace our bedroom carpet until my sister and I had stopped spitting up and pissing in corners.

The carpet was an ugly grey and black, not the kind of thing you usually see in a nursery. It was still there, rubbed down to its ropes, when I left Belfast to go to university. It was still there when we cleared the house out after my dad died. I was 51 that year and I want to you know that I haven’t thrown up or wet myself for ages.

Our bedroom was under the eaves of the 1950s bungalow, a room with walls and floors constructed from chipboard and masking tape by my father in the early 1960s. This description doesn’t do credit to the artistry of the design. The room was an ingenious use of space and managed to be sound and safe while still being light, architectural and original, as though rendered in origami. My father also built the stairs, all open-plan and wood and steel, like something from a mid-century design bible. In 45 years though, my father never quite got to the punch list items on this project. Although he was an electrical engineer, the power supply was ramshackle to say the least.

At the time we sold the house in 2011, all the lights in our bedroom were still powered by a plug in the hall on the main floor of the house, a flight of stairs below our eyrie. At first my parents kept it that way because of the power it gave them. If we didn’t settle, or refused to stay in bed with the lights off, they wrenched the downstairs plug from its socket and heard us squeal in the sudden darkness. Swift and terrible punishment and they didn’t even have to climb the stairs.

The room in the roof space became stifling hot in summer. I, plagued by allergies, used to lie on my single bed and sweat while my brother and sister spent the long holiday outside playing in the grass. Even without the excuse of itchy eyes and a streaming nose I would have chosen to stay inside and read. My bedside bookshelf was home to Heidi and the Railway Children, Five Children and It, and of course Anne of Green Gables, the girl who made it ok to be redheaded and to like long words.

The door to the bedroom was never equipped with a handle, much less a lock. Ours was the only room on this level and so at first it mattered little that we couldn’t close the door that led to the small landing at the top of the stairs. It mattered the day I brought a boyfriend home.  I was back from university for the summer and my love  and I had gone out for lunch in Belfast and came home tasting of  heat and white wine and strawberries. We went to bed and he, unfamiliar with the eccentricities of our upstairs arrangements, closed the door behind him. Our only exertion that hot and steamy afternoon was to try to wrench the door back open before my father came home from work at 5:15pm and before our air supply ran out. There was only one small window in the bedroom, and the  door needed to be open to allow air to circulate from the rest of the house.  We made it, just, before he died of dehydration and I died of shame.

The lack of a functioning door meant Anne and I could hear everything that happened down below. I’d turn up in the living room with a sore tummy or needing a glass of water when I heard the theme tune for Dr. Finlay’s Casebook on the living room TV. Sometimes my mother would let me join her on the sofa to see it. I sat curled in her arm with my toes tucked up in the hem of my brushed nylon nightie. She might have made my father tea and toast for supper and I’d get some too, dipping the buttered barmbrack in my own milky cup.

One January night when I was 10  I heard my father take the early morning call from the hospital telling him my mother had died. I remember he thanked the person on the other end of the line for letting him know. How could he? He went back to bed and I went back to sleep. We didn’t know what else to do.

Other nights, perhaps at 10pm, I would hear my father wind the clock that hung above the telephone table in the hall. The rasp of the key and the steady tock was reassurance that life would go on. I have that clock now but it’s banjaxed. I must get it fixed.

The curtains in our room were orange and our built-in furniture olive green. The walls were white. We slept in an interior design version of the Irish flag.

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